Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tone: You Know It When You See It

Scott D. Parker

Like Russel yesterday, when tone came down as the subject of the week, I groaned inwardly. How the heck do you talk about tone? Remember that saying a congressman or judge once said about porn: that he'd know porn when he saw it but couldn't quite put forward a definition? That's how I see tone.

Tone is also a bit like your life's journey: you can only see the signposts from the perspective of age and wisdom. When you break-up with your first love, at the time, it's like the world is crashing down and everything else is meaningless. With time, you can see that the new trajectory your life took was infinitely better.

The same goes with tone. Like Jay and Russel wrote, one of the mechanical things you can do to evoke a particular tone is choosing certain words to fill your sentences and paragraphs. Certain authors have a particular tone. You can read one paragraph of Charles Dickens and you know the author's tone. The same is true for Chandler, Hammett, Burroughs, Chabon, or dozens of other writers. Some authors can even mimic a certain tone. In the afterward to his new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz mentioned that he kept a list of certain words that he used over and over again. He did such a good job with capturing the tone and feel of Doyle's language that I sometimes forgot that Doyle wasn't the author.

Yes, you can set out to create a certain tone and wordsmith your way to that desired end. Take, for example, most network TV crime dramas. Because of the structure and the language choice, many have a similar tone. Does that make them bad? No, but if you don't like that particular tone, you probably won't like the shows.

Word choice alone is only a means to an end. In some ways, it's something that' too mechanical. An author's tone emerges over time, over the thousands of words written. Tone might be the thing only readers can discover. Yes, it's true that tone can materialize in prose, but if you want to get a good sense of your own, personal tone, read your own non-fiction, including blogs entries and emails. I have speech-to-text software on my computers and one of the things the program does during setup is to analyze your writing. If only there was an option for tone I'd have the answer to what mine is.

I'll admit that I'm not too seasoned a writer of prose to know if I have a prose tone or not, but I can easily recognize my tone in emails, especially professional ones.

Can you recognize your own tone in your prose or non-fiction?

No comments: